Review: Past Life 1×1

Ghoulish, offensive, badly written, stupid. It has good actors though

Past Life

In the US: Tuesdays, 9/8c, Fox
In the UK: If Living doesn’t pant at it like a dog in a desert, I’ll be surprised

Underneath its logo, Fox should really have etched like a motto below a family crest, “Never knowingly avoiding a formula.” All the other networks have sitcoms – it has to have sitcoms, even though it’s very bad at them. Other networks had cop shows, medical shows, comic book shows: it had to have them, too.

Now, other networks have had for quite some time shows in which people, usually cops, investigate and solve old crimes and bring justice to bereaved families. There’s obviously Cold Case, but ABC moved in with The Forgotten in the fall, so Fox clearly had to get some of that action. Here’s its mid-season stab at the same idea.

Being Fox though, and although there are exceptions to the rule, it’s gone for something supremely rubbish and tasteless. In Past Life, ‘psychologist’ Kate McGinn with the aid of former police officer Price Whatley helps people who find themselves remembering past lives to discover who they used to be, and who murdered them.

Would it be obvious and cliché to say that this one is pretty much “dead on arrival”?

Have you ever experienced déjà vu or met someone you thought seemed familiar? Do you believe in karma, fate or love at first sight? Have you ever had an out-of-body experience?

From writer David Hudgins (“Friday Night Lights”), and inspired by the book “The Reincarnationist” by M.J. Rose, comes PAST LIFE, a new drama series that investigates the world of the unexplained through the eyes of a doctor and a former detective who must work together to solve decades-old mysteries.

DR. KATE MCGINN (Kelli Giddish) is not your typical psychologist. Confident, outspoken and highly educated, she works at The Talmadge Center for Behavioral Health in New York City, a world-renowned institute dedicated to the study of the science of the soul. After experiencing a past-life regression in her 20s, Kate became a believer in reincarnation.

Using therapy and her natural gift for reading people, Kate helps solve the mysteries of her troubled clients by investigating their consciousness. She believes there are levels of consciousness and explanations for human behavior that science can’t begin to explain. Accustomed to skeptics, but not bothered by them, Kate is an unapologetic believer and a force of nature who marches to the beat of her own drum.

Her partner, PRICE WHATLEY (Nicholas Bishop), is a different story. A former NYPD homicide detective, pragmatic and cynical, Price is a damaged soul who constantly battles grief and guilt over the accidental death of his wife. Price feels that Kate, though not certifiable, certainly operates on the fringes of science. It’s a volatile relationship, but with Price’s solid detective skills and Kate’s penchant for out-of-the-box thinking, together they make a formidable, albeit somewhat dysfunctional, team.

An emotional thrill ride, each episode finds Price and Kate working with their colleagues to unravel a new mystery. DR. MALACHI TALMADGE (Richard Schiff) is Kate’s mentor and the center’s namesake, an avuncular but gruff elder statesman who is a legend in the field of cognitive research. DR. RISHI KARNA (Ravi Patel) is the rookie of the group, an energetic M.D. who loves bad TV, Cuban jazz and driving everyone crazy.

Produced by Bonanza Productions Inc. in association with Warner Bros. Television, PAST LIFE is executive-produced by David Hudgins and Lou Pitt. Hudgins also serves as writer. Deran Sarafian directed the pilot.

Is it any good?
I had such a hard time making it through this first episode. It’s horrible. It’s not just horrible, it’s exploitative and ghoulish. If Past Life were set in the real world, I’d hope all the characters would have been locked away by now for making the lives of bereaved parents and family miserable.

But it’s not, so let’s temporarily put our natural loathing for the show to one side and accept the whole premise with a pinch of salt by assuming we’re in the same kind of reality as The X-Files, Warehouse 13 and every other supernatural show that’s been on TV – because, let’s face it, if the events depicted in this actually happened even slightly regularly, science as we know it would have been revolutionised decades ago and that hasn’t happened.

Unfortunately, even with that done, we’re not looking at a great show. Psychologist Kate is the believer; ex-cop Price is the disbeliever. How’s that work? Well Kate’s a particularly bad scientist for one thing, with a minimal grasp of the nature of probabilities for example (they drive along and end up parked near a shop that Price’s wife used to like. “What are the chances of that?” Kate asks. Small, dumb dumb, but then again, you live in the same part of town as that shop because you probably have similar interests to his wife, so not as small as all that, and you drove to a hell of a lot of places that day that had no meaning whatsoever – all of which had exactly the same chance of happening).

So Kate finds out about all these people who are experiencing past lives – apparently they’re ten a penny – she goes along with Price, who helps to uncover information while camcordering everything for some reason – quick that guy’s gone into the ladies. Camcorder it! It might be proof he’s lived a previous life as a girl!

The past life people live out their past personalities – something you’d thought would happen more in real life if this were true – although never give out any truly useful information despite the clarity of their visions (“What can you see?” The water. Great. Didn’t want to give a description of the guy you can see abducting you? No. Okay, ghost whose one desire in all the world is to have justice done for your sister. That seems reasonable.).

Kate and Price then make staggering leaps in logic that no sane person would ever make (“She saw a red light flashing on top of something white… I’ve narrowed it down to… the Washington Monument”. Right… That was my first thought too) and invade the lives of the suspected family of the suspected deceased. They tell everyone that they’re past-life investigators, including lawyers, and rather than have an injunction placed on them preventing them from ever making contact again, they keep wheedling and general making these poor people’s lives hell until they relent. Then past-life person starts channelling again and everyone’s convinced on minimal evidence.

For example, fortunately, despite 14 years having elapsed since the abduction of the family’s two children, the children’s room is exactly the same as it used to be, except for one photo having been put in a drawer for no reason whatsoever. Channelling person says something is missing and tells everyone. That proves it’s all true, obviously, not that no dresser in the world is entirely clear of items so naturally something’s been moved if its surface is clear.

The FBI is of course convinced by all of this and sends SWAT teams into houses without warning or even probable cause to chase up Dr Kate’s hunches. All is revealed. Family is reunited. Hoorah. Price is converted. Except he’s not, because then he won’t be the sceptic the format needs.

As the backdrop of all of this, we have the standard plot dump dialogue, in which Kate and Price explain their lives to each other and passing strangers for no well explored reason, other than apparently to convince them to open up. We will never have these explanations again, I’ll bet you, even though logically they’d be telling more strangers the same stories every week to convince them, too.

So the dialogue’s ropey and the plots ridiculous (and offensive). On the plus side, there’s a good-ish cast. Kelli Giddish has charisma and Richard Schiff of The West Wing is on form as the gruff boss who sort of kind of believes sort of.

But it’s just not compelling. The characters are almost engaging but not quite. There’s no real difficulty to the investigations. It’s so divorced from reality that it doesn’t say anything about the world – we might as well be investigating Flxyyya theft on the planet qz’rrr 87. At best, it’s an attempt to be different from standard cop shows on a low budget while getting lots of people tear-jerky over their dead relatives.

I really can’t bear to watch any more episodes of this, so we’ll leave it at this: don’t watch it. Your time is more important than this.